An idiot’s guide to online music enjoyment.

Me and My iPod:

You gotta be freaking kidding me, I thought, as my armpits started to perspire. My editor stood in front of me in the Weekly’s kitchen while I tried to find a way to weasel out of what was sure to be a bad situation.

He had just informed me that I was to write a story about the Internet, music and iPods. Though I have a handle on today’s music scene and I own a frequently malfunctioning iPod, my computer and Internet skills around the office are the stuff of legend. I spent half of my first day on the job here learning where the on/off button on my Mac was located. I spent most of my first weeks on the job asking my new co-worker questions about computers rather than interviewing subjects for stories. I still can’t type, though these days I can chicken-peck the keys of my computer faster than a hungry bird cleaning the floor of a seed store.

My lack of computer savvy could be hereditary. Though my parents are latecomers to computers and the Internet, some of their friends that are the same age have better adapted to the technology. Every time I visit them at their home in the Virginia countryside they are in the midst of an epic struggle with their computers. My parents recently told me over the phone that one of their computer repairmen had stopped returning their calls, possibly from exhaustion. They said that the running joke between their friends in Goochland County was that if anyone had any computer problems they should contact my parents for advice.

My father thinks computers and the Internet are having a negative effect on people’s health. “I am convinced the incidents of heart attacks, strokes and mental breakdowns have increased since the advent of computers,” he said.

After that heated conversation about computers and the Internet, my father pleaded with me. “Next time you call, talk to us about something pleasant,” he said. “Not computers.”

Despite my confessed lack of computer ability and genetic bias, I decided to take on the assignment with one condition: that this will be an overview of music and the Internet for people like me, the computer illiterate.

WHAT YOU NEED

Before trolling the Internet for music, you need to take a gander at this handy checklist and make sure you are prepared.

A High-speed Internet Connection. If you only have a dial-up connection, you might want to dust off that old copy of War and Peace.  You could probably plow through all 1,250 pages of the epic while downloading the latest Snoop Dogg single.

A Digital Media Player. Digital media players allow you to play music downloaded from the Internet on your computer. There are many free digital media players available on the Internet.  The most popular is iTunes (apple.com/itunes/) but there are a handful of other freebies including RealPlayer (real.com/realplayer.html) and the Windows Media Player (microsoft.com). Others like the Music Match Jukebox (musicmatch.com) can be downloaded for a onetime fee of $19.99. The Music Match Jukebox justifies its cost by hyping “faster CD ripping” and something called “super tagging.”

A comfortable chair. This is mandatory.

An empty bladder. This is also mandatory.

A portable digital audio player. Optional but recommended. These devices allow you to take the music that you just got from the Internet anywhere you want, including the gym or your grandmother’s 80th birthday bash. Though the iPod is the most popular of these players, other gadgets include Creative’s Zen and the MobiBLU DAH-1500, which is a dice-sized bit of equipment commonly referred to as the “Cube.” 

WHAT YOU WANT

Have you ever been in a huge shopping mall or department store and been overwhelmed with all of your choices as a consumer? Well, that’s nothing compared to the Internet, where you can purchase everything from an unused tissue shaped like the Virgin Mary (ebay.com) to a medieval castle in the Austrian countryside (castles-for-sale.com). Likewise, there is a lot of music to wade through, so sometimes it helps to get a little advice from a music Web site.

Allmusic.com Allmusic.com is the Encyclopedia Britannica of music information Web sites. Featuring information on everyone from The Beatles to the underground rap of Spunk Rock, the impressive site is a great place to get an overview about artists in every genre from classical to electronica, rock to jazz. The comprehensive biography page tells the artist’s story, while the discography section ranks all the act’s releases on a five-star system. Also, a check mark by a particular selection represents an AMG Album Pick, which is the best or most defining work of the musical entity. For instance, when I wanted to sample some of David Bowie’s work, I chose to purchase The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars, which was awarded five stars on the Web site. I was not disappointed.

In addition, Allmusic is a great place to discover who composed a number and what artists do that song. Using the site, I learned that Van Morrison’s “Brown Eyed Girl” has appeared on almost 190 releases.

Essentialsofmusic.com Essentials of Music is the place to learn about classical music. Browsers can use the Web site to become educated about the six eras of classical music—Middle Ages, Renaissance, Baroque, Classical, Romantic, 20th Century—and can read the biographies of almost 70 composers, from female mystic Hildegard Von Bingen to jazz great Duke Ellington. Meanwhile, a glossary of terms defines words like libretto so that you can impress any date that you accompany to the opera. Essentials of Music even provides musical examples of works as long as you have a Real Audio Player downloaded to your computer.

I checked out Ellington’s busy “Cotton Tail,” which got my toes tapping.

Pitchforkmedia.com Easily one of the most influential music information Web sites, Pitchfork Media has recently catapulted some obscure acts into the mainstream with a single favorable review. Pitchfork was started by former record store clerk Ryan Schrieber, who now employs a small stable of writers with similar sensibilities.

Clap Your Hands Say Yeah! is an indie rock group that had released its own debut album. When Pitchfork’s reviewers gave the CD a rating of nine out of 10, the band suddenly became all the rage. Rock legend David Bowie joined the band on a New York City stage just days after the review, and before they knew it, the band was gracing the pages of national publications like Rolling Stone and the New York Times. 

Recently, the site awarded a band called Tapes ‘n’ Tapes an 8.3 out of 10 for their album The Loon.  Less than three weeks later, the band became one of the most sought after performers at Austin’s annual South by Southwest Festival, which showcases hundreds of mostly up and coming acts. The band was featured in Rolling Stone’s next issue twice for their performance at SXSW and in the CD review section, where The Loon received three and a half stars.

The homepage of Pitchfork Media is chock full of music news and reviews of the latest releases from established artists like Merle Haggard to under-the-radar acts like Kayo Dot. The staff even helps music enthusiasts decide whether downloading a particular song is worthwhile by rating everything from recent B-sides to singles.

The section of the homepage to pay special attention to is a column located in the right hand corner titled “Best New Music.” Here, you will probably be able to find the next Clap Your Hands Say Yeah! or Tapes ‘n’ Tapes before their greatness is proclaimed in other publications.

WHERE TO BUY MUSIC

Back at the tail end of the roaring ‘90s, people didn’t buy music on the Internet, they downloaded whole albums for free using file-sharing sites like Napster. But as the recording industry started to take notice, file-sharing sites were shut down and people started to get sued for copyright infringement.

Now, for those who want to get music on the Internet without becoming embroiled in a lawsuit, a handful of sites offer music downloads for a nominal fee—even Napster.

Unfortunately, some music stores are only compatible with specific audio players. Cnet.com has a great service located in its section on MP3 players titled the Music Compatibility Wizard, which shows what stores and services work with different types of MP3 players.

iTunes.com Launched by Apple Computers in 2003, the iTunes music store is the biggest and most popular of the online music stores. Though iTunes can’t compete with the volume of illegal Internet downloads—Rolling Stone says peer to peer sites move a billion tracks a month—iTunes recently hit a milestone when 16-year-old Alex Ostrovsky purchased the one billionth song on the music store.

The Web site offers over 2 million songs for 99 cents a pop. Despite the plethora of music available, some of popular music’s biggest acts are missing, including Led Zeppelin, AC/DC, The Beatles, Metallica and Radiohead. Radiohead and Led Zeppelin steer clear of online music stores like iTunes because they believe their songs should only be heard on full-length albums. Meanwhile, The Beatles, whose former record company was named Apple Records, just lost a lawsuit with Apple Computers over the Apple name.

In addition to offering the most comprehensive online music store, iTunes has a handful of interesting features for online music fans. One nice freebie is a “Free Download Single of the Week.” Past offerings have included John Legend’s “Get Lifted” and the Editors’ “Munich.”

Another iTunes exclusive is the online music store’s iTunes Originals section. Here, fans of artists like Fiona Apple and R.E.M. can download a combination of album tracks, in-studio live performances and interviews for between $9.99 and $11.99.

One easy way to spend a few hours is by checking out the site’s celebrity playlists. The section confirmed that Sharon Stone is hip by revealing that the actress enjoys listening to The Notorious B.I.G. and Tom Waits. Predictably, Jerry Bruckheimer, the producer of Hollywood fare like Pearl Harbor, likes overproduced artists like Josh Groban. 

Napster.com In 2001, Napster, the site that made peer-to-peer music sharing popular, shut down after a court ordered that the company could no longer trade copyrighted music.

Recently, Roxio Inc. bought the bankrupt company’s logos and transformed the Pressplay music service into Napster. The new Napster has an online music store featuring 2 million songs for sale. Napster offers a different business model than iTunes. Available for $9.95 a month, a Napster membership allows customers to download as many songs as they desire, but the music is listenable only as long as you are a member.

To use Napster’s services, you must have a PC running on XP/2K.

Eclassical.com Eclassical bills itself as the “world’s largest classical MP3 music store.” Patrons can search for music on the site by typing in the names of composers, performers or conductors. A special section allows you to customize a classical composition to a particular mood or situation. The site suggests Johann Sebastian Bach’s “Orchestral Suite No. 3” for hangovers and a trumpet concerto by Antonio Vivaldi if you are spending some time in prison.

After purchasing a work, Eclassical will send you e-mails recommending the compositions of other classical artists.

Emusic.com Are you the kind of person that cruises around the aisles of Costco and Trader Joe’s getting a meal out of all the free samples? If so, you would probably really dig Emusic’s online music store. First off, you can sample Emusic for a 14-day trail period. If you cancel your membership, you won’t be charged. Also, just by joining Emusic—which costs $9.99 for 40 downloads a month—you receive 25 free MP3s. And for each friend you convince to join, you secure another 50 free music downloads.

With over a million songs, Emusic focuses on independent music labels. Through this online music store, you might be able to track down the latest release on Waggle Daggle Records or Bad Stain Records.

One superb feature on Emusic is their eMusicLive section, which has whole live performances including a 2003 Taj Mahal show at Boulder, Colorado’s Fox Theatre and a 2002 My Morning Jacket gig at the Washington DC 9:30 Club.

Be forewarned that downloading songs from Emusic to iTunes involves an extra step. You must create a My Emusic folder on iTunes for the songs downloaded from the online music store.

Audiolunchbox.com Like Emusic, Audio Lunchbox specializes in indie music and offers monthly memberships. In this case, a monthly membership costs $9.99 a month for 40 credits.

The site’s homepage pulls you right in by showing off the album covers of the 35 Audio Lunchbox editor’s picks and the 24 Audio Lunchbox staff favorites. The Web site brings the hipster music knowledge of other sites like Pitchfork Media to its online music store. A click on the selected releases allows you to listen to a 30-second sample of the CD’s tracks before purchasing.

WHAT NOT TO DO

Despite lawsuits against file sharers from the Recording Industry Association of America, which is a massive conglomeration of record companies, people are still taking copyrighted material from the Internet without paying for the music.

If you can get past the moral issues of taking an artist’s work without paying for it, here are a couple of ways to commit the crime of copyright infringement. It is probably only a matter of time before these other sites will be sued by the RIAA or shut down.

Limewire.com Limewire seems to shift the blame of downloading copyrighted material away from itself by making visitors sign an agreement saying they will only use the software for legal purposes.

Peer-to-peer networks like Limewire may be illegal or immoral, but the one great thing for music enthusiasts is that there is a lot of music on the site that cannot be found on proper CDs. A search for songs by the cult rock act Ween revealed rare tracks like “It’s a Bong, Not a Microphone” and a live cover of The Doors’ “Riders on the Storm.”

Meanwhile, the Web site also has scores of interesting covers done by rock legend Bob Dylan. Limewire maintains that it has Dylan doing Johnny Cash’s “Cocaine Blues” and an even bigger surprise is a cover of Radiohead’s “Creep.”

One of the problems with Limewire is that you can never be sure that what you are downloading is what the site says it is. The supposed Dylan take on  “Creep” featured a singer with a very exaggerated nasal voice, leading me to conclude that it was performed by an impersonator.

Also, one local Limewire user complained that songs downloaded from the site sometimes have poorer sound quality than the tunes purchased from online music stores or played from store-bought CDs. He also complained of having snippets cut out of tracks taken from the site.

Limewire is really easy to use for the most computer illiterate people. All the user needs to do is download a free copy of Limewire’s software from the site (a pro package is also available for $18.88). Once the software is downloaded onto your computer, click on it to connect to the site and download music. Now you can listen to your pirated version of Johnny Cash’s “Folsom Prison Blues,” while you are spending time in the clink for copyright infringement.

Bittorrent.com BitTorrent is actually just software that you can download for free at bittorrnet.com. The program retrieves small parts of files from many Internet users. BitTorrent automatically bypasses any corrupt files.

There are several BitTorrent search engines on the Internet, including mininova.org and torrentsearch.us, where users can search for music files to download.

Proceed with caution: Recently, one BitTorrent site, Isohunt.com, was sued by the Motion Picture Association of America. 

I had a real problem downloading music using BitTorrent software. The files would appear on my desktop, but they couldn’t be dragged into iTunes.

I spent a great deal of minutes on my cell phone calling a couple East Coast pals who swear by the software about my problems. They ended up coming to the conclusion that I just wasn’t going to understand how to use BitTorrent. That is fine with me. It could save me some legal fees.

WHERE TO LISTEN TO FREE MUSIC

With most traditional radio stations following a strict format, discerning music fans are turning to the Internet for more eclectic playlists or to hear genres of music that are not usually beamed over the airwaves.

Somafm.com Broadcast from a San Francisco basement, this commercial-free online station has nine mostly electronica music shows. One particularly cool program is “Secret Agent,” which plays the smooth sounds of artists like Les Baxter and Serge Gainsbourg.

Radioparadise.com Run by Bill Goldsmith, a former DJ for local radio stations including Carmel’s KLRB and Freedom’s KPIG, Radio Paradise is not afraid to follow electronica act Thievery Corporation with the southern rock of the Allman Brothers. 

Pandora.com Pandora actually lets visitors create their own online radio station. All you do is enter the name of a favorite artist or favorite song, and Pandora finds other acts and tunes that have similar characteristics.

When I typed in Public Enemy, the site played the rap group’s “Do You Wanna Go Our Way?” followed by Kool G Rap’s “I Die 4 U.” It explained that it picked Kool G Rap’s jam because among other things the track had a “similar hardcore rap attitude” as Public Enemy.

IN A LEAGUE OF ITS OWN

Myspace.com There is no Web site shaking up the music industry more than Myspace. Founded in 2003, Myspace allows users to create their own page featuring photos, blogs and music postings and to easily interact with other site visitors.

Recently, Myspace has come under scrutiny for being a site where sexual predators prey on underage victims, and gangs have used the site in an attempt to recruit new members. Currently, Myspace is blocked at all schools that use  Monterey County Office of Education’s Internet server.

Despite all the bad press, Myspace is a superb tool for bands and music enthusiasts. Local bands who aren’t together enough to create their own Web site can throw up a Myspace band page featuring streaming audio and band photos in an hour. Monterey County groups like hard rockers Third Eclipse and reggae rock outfit Cali Nation use the Web site to promote upcoming shows and to introduce their music to new people.

County folks have a lot of local music to dig into on Myspace, from 8-year-old Marina rapper Lil’ Jordan rhyming about a young love interest and Spongebob backpacks on “My Puppy Luv” to local metalheads Moria performing “Forever Entombed,” which sounds like a demon belching over razor-sharp riffs. There are so many local acts on Myspace that it makes you wonder if behind every garage door in Monterey a band is practicing and someone is recording a song in every bedroom in Salinas.

Salinas country punkers Rum & Rebellion, indie rockers Beezle, longtime local rock outfit InBalance, pop rocker Karma, heavy metal band Retribution, emo rock group The Achievement and recent Monterey Battle of the Bands winner Darktown Rounders all use Myspace for promotion and to interact with one another. 

Myspace is such a great promotional tool that more established acts are using it. Weezer, Neil Diamond and the Black Eyed Peas have all debuted their most recent releases on the site for free. Recently, it was possible to listen to all of the Yeah, Yeah, Yeahs’ Show Your Bones a week before it was in stores.

For music enthusiasts, the benefits are obvious: a chance to freely sample the music of the 1 million bands that have Myspace pages. Also, it’s a great place to find out what’s happening in your own musical backyard. A recent search of artists within 20 miles of Monterey revealed over 2,000 “acts” of varying quality. There were some great musicians that I had never even heard of despite writing about local music for the last three years. I discovered The Waitresses, a Salinas band with a funky ‘80s rock sound that nods to Blondie. I stumbled upon Coojo The Nightcrawler, a smooth Seaside rapper whose flow at times resembles that of Tupac.

But browsing Myspace can be also a very frustrating experience. The site receives so much traffic that sometimes it feels like your commands are moving in slow motion. At other moments, the site can cause your Internet connection to unexpectedly quit.

THE LAST TRACK

Despite my initial dread at this assignment, I have learned to use the Internet as a music resource. Sure, my skin has turned a gothic pale due to afternoons spent in front of my computer. Yes, I can feel my backbone curving like a candy cane after hours spent hunched over my keyboard.

Should I finally break away and head to the beach? Naw, it’s kinda cloudy out there. Besides, I want to go online and see what Pitchfork thinks about the new Jolie Holland CD. Or maybe I’ll try to buy a track from the new quirky hip-hop duo Gnarls Barkley. I heard they are really good.

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